Mason Family Saga – part 1

Posted by on October 19, 2020 in Community & Family History, Featured Flag | 4 comments

Find this story and more in “Lanark County Legends“, edited by Lanark County Genealogical Society, 2020.

Getting to Know my 3x Great-grandfather – Robert Mason

Robert Mason’s Hat

Robert Mason, my 3x Great Grandfather has been part of the family lore since I was a young child. Edith Miller (1st cousin twice removed) would include his name in her sharing at the annual ‘Miller Picnics’ each year and later my father became the custodian of Robert Mason’s top hat and diaries. After his passing they were donated to the Lanark Village Museum (except for one) and have become an integral part of their artifact collection. Although three of Robert’s daughters married ‘Miller’ men our knowledge of Robert Mason, the family man was limited, and popular literature recorded him in the sternest of terms. I was recently asked to write Robert Mason’s story for publication in the 2020 book “Lanark County Legends” – a collection of stories edited and prepared by the Lanark County Genealogical Society. I continued my research after submitting his story and the following is a summary of my research to date in 2020.Diane Miller Duncan 2020

The Immortalized Robert Mason

Many, familiar with the history of the village of Lanark, Lanark County, Ontario will have heard the following oft-told stories of Robert Mason the teacher.

Rev. Joshua Fraser, a student of Robert Mason in a book entitled Shanty, Forest and River Life printed in 1863, describes him thus:

“He was ‘…the most characteristic type that I ever knew, or heard of, … the strange, eccentric, oddly-fashioned, antiquated men, who then filled the chairs of learning in the rural and backward districts … my remembrance of him is as fresh and vivid as of yesterday… He was sent out…with the first band of immigrants who settled in this country in 1821, and for nearly thirty years he taught and thrashed in the little stone school in the village.

He was a tall gaunt, raw-boned, beetle-browed Scotchman (sic), an elder of the Kirk, a true-blue Presbyterian of the hardest and sternest cast. He seldom smiled…was…an exceedingly irascible old man; and…had become despotic and severe to the last degree. He was just as absolute, and upon occasion tyrannical, in his way as any autocrat of the Middle Ages.”

Charles Mair, son of a village merchant, was also a student of Robert Mason. He was later to became one of the first five members of the ‘Canada First’ party. As a young man he was sponsored by the Hon. William MacDougall, then Minister of Public Works under John A. Macdonald, later became Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba. Charles received a government position under MacDougall and was sent west as an official in Fort Garry. His title was paymaster to a group directed to develop a road from the Lakehead (Thunder Bay) to Fort Garry (downtown Winnipeg). Mair’s real task was to send articles to eastern newspapers for the purpose of stimulating immigration to the new territory recently incorporated into the Dominion of Canada. His journalist zeal became one of the contributing causes of the Riel rebellion. Mair was captured by a Metis chief, escaped, and then trekked 600 miles through the wilderness to St. Paul Minnesota. His articles, and letters to his ‘Canada First’ friends, roused such anger in Ontario that Ottawa was obliged to send a military expedition to restore order in the new territory.

As a student of Robert Mason, Mair was a frequent target of Mason’s taws. His greatest offence was being truant, and he was often delivered to the school by his father who considered truancy as “one of the deadliest sins”. Fraser records that Mair hated school “with a perfect and undying hatred” and estimated that all mental and scholastic attainments during that period were nil. “Mair took every opportunity to run away to the woods, the hills, the riverside.”

In later years, Charles Mair described Mason as being “muscular and ungainly with rugged cheeks and a long bristly chin”. Mair conceded that no other class of teacher could have controlled the country school of those days when there were “about seventy of us, of all ages from the child to the stalwart man of 20 or more, packed into a small building of twenty feet square.”

It is reported that when Robert Mason died in the 1860s (sic 1862), Charles Mair and Rev. Fraser, were home on holidays from Queen’s University. They were present and, “not without a silent tear, helped to lower his coff into the grave.”[1]

Robert Mason, Community Builder and Family Man

During the 1970s my father became custodian of four journals[2] kept by Robert Mason and the top-hat he would have worn for church and other formal occasions. I was fortunate at that time to be able to make notes from these journals and later Dad prepared a methodical recording of the content[3]. It was from his transcription and my earlier notes that I have been able to piece together, Robert Mason, the person.

Who was Robert Mason?

Robert Mason was born to James Mason and Elizabeth Allen in Cambuslang Parish, Lanarkshire. Robert and his siblings were skilled hand weavers in the cotton trade and Robert’s work was sought by significant mercantile concerns in Glasgow and area.

In the years after his marriage to Helen Gourlie[4] in 1808, and preceding immigration in 1821, he employed four apprentices at a time[5] – seven in total over the years. The work of the apprentices went to individuals seeking less costly fabric than that produced by Robert. Later they would be allowed to work on pieces to fill commercial orders. Most of Robert’s apprentices, if not all, became future immigrants.

In his journal, Robert records the poor market conditions and the growing unrest in the Glasgow area in 1820. He also records the subsequent apprehension of John Aiken, Andrew Park and Andrew McLaren, local men, for their part in the protests. Andrew Park was one of his apprentices and one must wonder if this event was a turning point for Robert and his family.

In February 1821 Robert sold looms and equipment to Jean Lang and John Muir. Robert, Helen, sons John and James and daughters Jane, Elizabeth, and Ellen sailed from Scotland on the George Canning on 13th April 1821, leaving all Robert’s siblings behind. The family arrived in Quebec on the 2nd of June. By 11th  Jul 1821 he received his first immigrants’ payment installment in Perth, Upper Canada. Robert records that James, aged one, died on 28th of June, while they were enroute to Perth.

On the 3rd of August 1821, Robert received a land grant in Lanark Township of Concession 2 Lot 9W and part of Concession 2 Lot 10, 25 acres, a park lot adjacent to the village of Lanark[6]. The crown patent for the park lot was issued in 1828, indicating that settlement tasks were completed, probably with the assistance of students in his school.

Col. Marshall engaged Robert Mason to teach on 8th of November 1821. George Richmond, the designated schoolteacher for the Lanark settlers was killed by a falling tree the previous winter. The school opened 18th February 1822. At forty years of age, with a young family, Robert, who sent his Scotland-born children to school at an early age, who read widely and followed the evolution of world events was ideally situated to become a leader in the community.

Robert Mason Journal
One of Robert Mason’s Journals

Robert Mason, a Community Leader

  • Interest in National and World Affairs

Robert’s journals indicate that he read widely and subscribed to several newspapers from Glasgow, Montreal and later Kingston. He followed politics, the events of the royal family, and recorded events in Canada including the rebellion of 1838 and the election of Malcolm Cameron. He was a known Reformer. He recorded world events such as the search for a north-west passage and the discovery of land in the southern hemisphere. No doubt he relayed information to others in the community.

  • A Community Resource of Information for Pioneer Life

Robert recorded many home remedies for both humans and animals. In a time when no doctor or veterinarian was available, the articles he copied were sought by those in need.

Robert, an educated settler, was called on to draft formal documents. He copied examples of legal documents for reference. His penmanship was superb and his services as a scribe were in high demand.

Robert continued to pursue weaving throughout his life and recorded his weaving drafts. In 1951 George Miller, a grandson, lived with him and trained as a weaving apprentice. Robert’s loom, stored in a barn in Bathurst township, was sold by relatives in the 1980s.

Robert recorded changes in the weather, the progress of the local crops and the blossoming of fruit trees. Robert recorded the breeding of his cattle, when and by what bull. This attention to the details of animal husbandry came down through the generations to my father, Ernest Miller, who devoted a lifetime to building a championship herd of Holsteins.

  • Man of Strong Beliefs

Robert was a member of the Temperance Society, recording his refusal of an invitation by a neighbour to come by for ‘a drink’. In a community where alcohol was freely available, his staunch Presbyterian beliefs affected many aspects of his life.

Robert was Clerk of Session for the Church of Scotland in Lanark Village. He took this role seriously and when church reform was prevalent, he resisted the changes affecting other communities. At one point, for about three years, there was no Presbyterian minister at Lanark, and it was Robert Mason who kept the congregation together, holding a regular Sunday service. Then came the great split in the Presbyterian Church, a schism which caused disruption in Canada as well as in Scotland.

Rev. Fraser reported that:

“As an elder in the kirk he stands forth as a shining and venerated model to the most zealous and distinguished of his brethren even to the present day. His sterling, unflinching integrity, his simple-minded, pure-hearted piety, his practical orthodoxy, his rigid, unbending, iron-cast character all stamped his as a man of most wholesome influence in church matters during his day and generation.

Along came a Dr. Burns, who planned to preach at Lanark as to the Free Church way of thinking. He was greeted at the church door by Robert Mason, who said firmly “ye’ll never put your foot in yon pulpit while I have the key of the kirk in my pocket.

Dr. Burns then made his way to the old wooden courthouse, followed by the congregation who hadn’t seen such excitement since they came to Lanark. Robert Mason went too and listened with growing consternation to the visitor’s discourse until he could bear it no longer. “I canna stand that!” he shouted, and he got up and strode down the isle to the door.

Although other Presbyterian churches in the district subsequently converted to the new way of thinking, the people of Lanark remained true to the Auld Kirk.”

  • Community Bookkeeper

Robert was known for his honesty and accuracy and recorded the finances of the local church, the school and of businessmen in the community. He also recorded the local tax receipts for the Community. School records included the amount paid by each family, the number and often the name of students who attended and for how long. Opposite the fee, he recorded whether the fee was paid in currency or barter and the product or service provided. Details of Mason family expenditures and purchases are interspersed throughout the journals. Accounts owing to and from his children were noted as cleared in the 1850s as he neared the end of his life in 1862.

  • Family and Community Historian

Throughout his life Robert corresponded with family members and friends in Canada and Scotland. While the letters that were exchanged have not survived, Robert records the date of receiving and writing letters, sometimes with the address of the correspondent. He carefully notes the names of people in Scotland found in letters received from his brother William. Although context is missing in the journals, information he received would be passed on to other settlers who were not receiving ‘news of home’. As Clerk of Session, he would share some information with the congregation when they met. Robert notes visits with community members and those who die or come to his attention is some way, providing a unique view into the pioneer society.

Little was written of James and Elizabeth his parents but notes from William’s letters give us information about his siblings and their families. Before leaving Scotland, Robert and his brother’s William and David traded weaving equipment regularly and there is evidence of a close relationship with these siblings.

  • Father and Family Man

Robert Mason and Helen Gourlie had a total of nine children. The one instance of emotion he shows is when he records Helen’s death. He followed the evolution of his family as his grandchildren arrive, indicating that letters and visits were common. His family included:

  • James Mason, their first born, who died at nine months.
  • Jeane or ‘Jane’ Mason who lived with her parents, and later her father until his death in 1862. In later life she lived with James and Ellen Richardson in Drummond Township where she realigns her religious affiliation to Independent[7] and later Congregationalist. On 25 Apr 1843, Robert records that Jane, who had four or five years of schooling before leaving Scotland, began to teach at the mill school. In 1852, Jean is a schoolteacher in Lanark Village. She does not marry.
  • Elizabeth Mason married Thomas Miller, son of William Millar and Margaret Burns. She lived in Bathurst Township and died in childbirth after delivering twins in January 1850. Elizabeth and Thomas had ten children, many who moved to Minnesota with their father.
  • John Mason, was born in 1813 in Cambuslang, apprenticed with Charles Miller to become a saddler in 1830. Robert records a son born to John in 1830. I have not found a record of a marriage. He visited his parents several times in the 1840s. In 1846 his address is noted as four miles above Kingston; in 1847 as Napanee; in 1848 as Millcreek, Ernestown (Loyalist Township, Lennox and Addington County); in 1855 Robert payed a bill held by Robert Boyle:

“Cash owing him by John Mason. This is a balance of a sum of £5 John owed Mr. Boyle in 1841. Being security for my said son, I paid this balance to Mrs. Boyle, being in my debt to the amount of £3 5s when my son failed in business in 1841, by that, this account is now settled. (I was bound for my son John’s account).”

Robert’s next mention of John is in 1959 when Robert records “To cash lent him at sundry times, £2 15s”. and later that “John born October 27th, 1813 died September 2nd, 1860.” The search for information continues.

  • Helen or Ellen Mason married George Miller, son of William Miller and Margaret Burns, is my 2x great-grandmother. There were 13 children in this Bathurst township family. George was a farmer and many of the descendants remained close to the family farm.
  • James Mason, born in 1820 in Cambuslang, died in Jun 1821 enroute to the new home in Lanark Township.
  • Robertson Mason, married Sarah Ann Macdonald and worked in the lumber camps. Their family of nine children moved to the Parry Sound District and some are buried in Powassan, Ontario.
  • Jannet Mason married Alexander Robson in Lanark Village in 1848 and moved to Madrid, St. Lawrence County, New York where she was a parent to four children from Alexander’s first marriage and additional eight children born to her.
  • Margaret Mason married Peter Miller, son of Andrew Miller, and Catherine Munro. Andrew was brother of William Miller mentioned above. Margaret and Peter had four children who were raised in Bathurst township, some who were active in the ‘Miller Picnic’ group of relatives.

The last entry in the journal transcription is the record of costs associated with the building of ‘the new house’ which was raised the 7th of June 1861, just a year prior to Robert Mason’s death. Robert Boyle supplied the logs and 3000 shingles; Alex Caldwell provided the boards; Robert Drysdale items unspecified but probably nails, hinges, etc.; Andrew Gemmill dug the foundation and plastered the interior; ‘Frenchmen’ hewed logs and provided labour, lime etc.; John Wright, an unspecified contribution. The total cost of material and labour was $94.50, boarding of men was not included.

I don’t question the observations of Robert Mason’s former students but there was so much more to this man. Robert left a seemingly close-knit group of siblings and parents in Scotland and lost a child upon arrival in Canada. In Colonel Marshall’s report in 1834, the lot he received in Canada was described as having a small clearing, the rest is rocks. Robert was an educated man and made the best of the situation by agreeing to be schoolmaster. His children who were born in Scotland received several years of schooling before departure for Canada, demonstrating Robert’s appreciation of a sound education. Many of his students used his rudimentary instruction to begin their journey to significant careers. Robert Mason was a man of principle and through involvement on multiple levels, contribute to the building of a community in the new community. Members of the Kirk recognized his contribution to the church in the village. Robert reveals little emotion in his diaries but one get’s a sense that he valued family highly and loved his wife dearly. This was Robert Mason, my 3x great grandfather.


[1] The Story of Lanark, 1962, pp. 36-39 and A Pioneer History of the County of Lanark, Jean S. McGill, T.H. Best Printing, 1968which include excerpts from Master Works of Canadian Authors, Vol. XIV, edited by John W. Garvin, Toronto, 1926.

[2] Three now held by the Lanark Village museum, one in private collection.

[3] Copy held in library, Algonquin College, Perth, ON and elsewhere.

[4] Helen’s brother William (1781-1832) and his family were also members of the Cambuslang Immigration Society.

[5] Apprentices included David Thomson, John Glenn, John Park and Andrew Park, John Coats, Robert Whyte, and Archibald Arbuckle. Robert and Archibald had not completed their apprenticeship in 1821 and were given their liberty.

[6] Mason notes that he bought William Read’s lot for £67 10s on 2 Jul 1822. This may be the ‘park lot’.

[7] Independents were the forerunners of Congregationalists. Britannica describes Congregationalists as a “Christian movement that arose in England in the late 16th and 17th centuries. It occupies a theological position somewhere between Presbyterianism and the more radical Protestantism of the Baptists and Quakers. It emphasizes the right and responsibility of each properly organized congregation to determine its own affairs, without having to submit these decisions to the judgment of any higher human authority, and as such it eliminated bishops and presbyteries. Each individual church is regarded as independent and autonomous.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Congregationalism

4 Comments

  1. I guess at this time I would like birth and death dates of Robert Mason and Helen Gourley Thanks.

    • Robert Mason 1781-1862, Helen Gourlie (Gourlay, Gourly) 1785-1844

  2. Dear Diane,
    Found your article interesting. As I was reading it I thought the Mason name sounded familiar. So I dug out my books and saw that my my mother’s great grandmother, Mary Miller’’s (is married to Joseph Schlegel) parents were Peter Miller and Margaret Mason. In your article you said that Peter was the son of Andrew Miller where I have he was the son of Simon Miller. Just wondering if we’re talking about the same people. Do you have any birthdates etc? I’m guessing that the Mason line is the same, Margaret being the daughter of Robert. Now I have great info on my third great grandmother’s father. Thanks if you can clarify the Andrew Miller/Simon Miller for me.

    • Can you clarify the relationships? Was your mother’s great grandmother Mildred Mary Miller b 1912? daughter of Simeon Miller (1885-1969) and Ida May Forester? Simeon son of Robert McLaren Miller and Mary Drysdale? I would love to help sort this out.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.